Perhaps he didn’t need to say it. In fact, I wish he hadn’t. Because it is easily one of the favorite things for evangelical college students today to say, and what they mean by it is that words aren’t necessary.
They are wrong. The gospel is good news, not pantomime.
Yes, many of them want to feed the hungry, build houses for the poor and save the planet. They want to act out the story of Jesus as best they can without having to understand it or explain it.
All that stuff about sin and the blood of Christ seems so messy and intolerant, as though his sacrifice demands a response. It might make people uncomfortable. The gospel however does demand a response. It is uncomfortable, and even offensive. And Francis is wrong. At some point you do have to use words, otherwise you have no gospel at all.
In “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire” Brad Greenberg provides a brief history of missions, since the 1910 world missions conference in Edinburgh that literally changed the world. But “Christians today typically travel abroad to serve others, but not necessarily to spread the gospel,” he says.
Today’s “vacationaries,” young evangelicals who spend two weeks building houses in Honduras for example, make little if any long lasting impact. A 2006 study found “little or no difference” in the spiritual response of Hondurans whose houses had been built by missions organizations and those built by other, non-Christian charities.
He writes, “Unless foreigners explain that they are motivated to help by their religious beliefs, locals may be grateful for the new home but they should not be expected to connect dots that they may not even know exist.”
I know dozens of young people however who would gladly give their life to fight human trafficking in Thailand as long as they didn’t have to tell the traffickers and their victims that they are lost and in need of a savior.
I’m not saying that compassion and stewardship are not important, or that touching lives and caring for creation is not be part of our responsibility. But our mission is to say that Christ died for our sins. That is the gospel.
Scott Moreau, a missions professor at Wheaton College, says two decades ago half his graduate students believed building churches abroad was their top priority, but today less than 10% feel that way. That’s too bad. If you show up and dig a well but do not leave a church, you have failed to follow the great commission.
People who are unwilling to dig in and leave a community of disciples are doing something temporary when they could be doing something eternal. Either they don’t understand the gospel, or they don’t believe it. If they did, it would change their lives, and they would want it to change other people too.
In the New Testament the gospel is associated with words like preach, proclaim and testify. That’s because it is an unexpected and powerful story that must be understood and believed, and that by the grace of God. Faith comes by hearing, as the Apostle said.
But the gospel does more than distinguish the church from the Red Cross. The gospel transforms people from the inside out.
Many young people only care about changing the outside.
If they want to preach the gospel, they will have to use words.